July 2016
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Chronic Wasting Disease: Is It Unavoidable?

Let’s look at the facts, and how Alabama is taking action.

During the March 26 Conservation Advisory Board Meeting, the board voted unanimously to amend the current regulation 220-2-.25 to ban the importation of certain body parts of hunter-harvested deer taken in states that have tested positive for chronic wasting disease in an attempt to further protect the valuable wildlife resources of Alabama.

  CWD is a disease that affects members of the deer family much in the same way mad cow disease affects cattle. Alabama is being proactive in an attempt to preserve the hunting traditions we enjoy and prevent the transmission of CWD into our state. (Credit: Al Benn)

Each year since I have been in this position, it seems a new state falls into the category of CWD positive. Arkansas is the most recent victim. In addition, news releases are all too commonly informing the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources of people caught illegally transporting live deer across state lines. Georgia and Mississippi have both made huge cases in the last two years.

With all of the recent press surrounding CWD, I wanted to give Chris Cook, deer project leader, and Lieutenant Carter Hendrix, game breeder supervisor, an opportunity to share their thoughts with hunters about this issue and how it could potentially impact Alabama. Here are their accounts:

The rich outdoor tradition in our state brings those from outside to enjoy the activities that we, as Alabamians, sometimes take for granted. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s task is management, with the goal of sustaining the resource for future generations.

Unfortunately, there are things that could affect the resource such as CWD.

CWD is a disease that affects members of the deer family much in the same way mad cow disease affects cattle. There is no cure. Once it is detected, there is no getting rid of the disease.

Some symptoms of CWD are the inability to walk or stand normally, loss of bodily functions, weight loss and poor body condition. Infected animals often stand near a water source and drink excessively.

Currently, 24 states and two Canadian provinces have been affected by CWD, but the number continues to climb. The latest state to be affected was Arkansas, with confirmed positive tests in February and March of 2016.

The economic impact of CWD is immense. In an attempt to locate the origin of the disease, states where CWD-positive tests occur must resort to sampling wild and farmed herds in the region where the initial CWD-positive animal was found. This sampling attempts to determine the extent and infection rate within the CWD-positive zone. In situations involving farmed deer, additional sampling also attempts to eradicate the source by depopulating the infected captive herds. In the first year after detection, Wisconsin spent upward of $2.5 million in control efforts from its wildlife management budget. Oklahoma spent in excess of $2.6 million. And Saskatchewan has spent approximately $30 million in attempts to eradicate the disease from commercial game farms.

The typical cost of a single test is $35 per sample. Adding the manpower and equipment costs for the personnel retrieving samples, the manpower involved in tracking farmed cervids that have been transported to and from the region and public notifications addressing the positive tests can quickly escalate the amount associated with dealing with a CWD-positive animal.

The financial impact resulting from the loss of hunters and hunting-related activities in the years after a CWD-positive test can also put a tremendous strain on already limited budgets. The detection of CWD can be financially devastating for state wildlife agencies.

Most states have taken measures to try to reduce the chances of CWD occurring in the wild. Alabama is being proactive in an attempt to preserve the hunting traditions we enjoy and prevent the transmission of CWD into our state.

In 1973, Alabama placed a ban on importation of live deer. No live members of the Family Cervidae that include any deer, elk and moose may cross the borders into Alabama. Pass-through permits for captive deer carry restrictions on the shipment, including refraining from transporting Cervidae species from areas where CWD has been diagnosed.

In Alabama, the diagnostic laboratories of the Department of Agriculture and Industries take samples and ship them to a USDA-approved laboratory for testing. Testing for CWD on hunter-harvested animals in Alabama began in 2001, with 90 animals being evaluated. In 2006, farmed cervids were added to the numbers being tested. Since then, the number of tests performed annually has ranged from 300 to almost 800. All animals have tested negative thus far. The plan is to continue sample testing.

Game breeders are licensed to breed, raise and sell deer for the purposes of propagation within enclosures in the state. Game breeders are held to standards of inventory recordkeeping and notification of transportation, deaths, releases and escapes. In 2012, it became illegal to release captive-raised deer into the wild in Alabama. Therefore, all captive-raised deer under a Game Breeder License must be sold only to enclosure owners or other game breeders.

A number of states utilize the USDA APHIS-maintained database as required by the CWD Monitoring Program Standards. The WFF Division decided to develop a proprietary secure online database for these records. This database is now in the final testing stages. Breeders have assisted in the evaluation of the database. It appears that it will be a success for documentation and disease traceability purposes.

In 2012, the WFF Division saw the need for predetermined steps and developed a CWD Response Plan outlining actions in response to a CWD-positive animal being found in Alabama.

The WFF Division wants to greatly reduce the possibility of CWD occurring in Alabama. However, the trend of states having positive tests certainly makes it appear unavoidable. On your behalf, the Division is taking steps and making preparations for either scenario.

If you see a deer that appears to be showing symptoms of CWD or a vehicle that appears to be transporting deer or elk along Alabama highways, please contact the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries at 1-800-272-GAME. To learn more about chronic wasting disease or to see our CWD Response Plan, visit outdooralabama.com.



 Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.